Universities will be forced to publish data on gender pay gaps and the number of ethnic-minority and disabled staff they employ under new legislation.
The Equality Act 2010, which gained Royal Assent last week, simplifies existing equality law and proposes the annual publication of a new set of employment-equality data.
It follows recent comments by Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who predicted a future of greater transparency in which female academics' decisions about where to work are informed by "league tables" showing universities' records on promoting women to professorships and equal pay.
Speaking at City University London last month, Mr Phillips predicted that this would change the sector "quite dramatically".
Under the Act, universities will be obliged to publish breakdowns of the gender pay gap for all staff, alongside ethnic-minority and disability employment rates.
In addition, the Act will extend public-sector equality duties to cover sexual orientation, religion, age, gender, disability and race.
It will also place a duty on high-level authorities, such as government departments, to examine the impact of their actions on people from different socio-economic backgrounds.
The act will extend positive action to allow an employer choosing between two equally qualified applicants to select one candidate on the grounds that they hail from an under-represented group.
The Equality Challenge Unit, which promotes equality for staff and students in the academy, welcomed the bill's progression.
Levi Pay, policy director at the ECU, said the legislation was "a bold step forward" in tackling discrimination in the academy.
ECU research suggests that there could be a culture of "liberal complacency" in higher education that can prevent universities from addressing inequality, Mr Pay said.
He acknowledged that investing in the area would be difficult in the present climate, but said doing so would pay off in the long run.
Currently, universities could "reach for their chequebooks" and make "the odd complainant who has a good case go away", he said, but this would no longer be tenable.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said the act would "encourage a more sophisticated response, both in terms of how disadvantage is identified and how a university responds".
She added that universities were already well equipped to comply with the new requirements and on publishing equality data they were "ahead of the game".